The rubric for my five-year-old’s first project in kindergarten was the first thing I saw when I walked into my kitchen after a long day at work. With the weight of my briefcase on my shoulder and my son’s first A on my conscience, I scanned the requirements for the animal kingdom diorama.
“We’ve got this.”
All these years later, I can still remember shocking myself by uttering those words out loud.
My son, enamored with the newly released “Finding Nemo”, wanted to make an aquarium. I was filled with ideas, which I couldn’t seem to keep to myself, and came home the next day laden with supplies. My husband also got in on the action, because how fun is gluing sand to the bottom of a shoe box?
Also, I needed an extra set of hands to hold the fish while I threaded the strings that suspended them from the top of this marine exhibit. My kitchen counter was covered with sand, glue, fake algae, shells, multi-colored fish, glitter, and paint. I was in my glory.
The dioramas were displayed along the kindergarten hallway at back-to-school night. Driven by an inherently competitive nature, I scanned the projects with curiosity and smugly concluded that virtually every project was crafted by adults – especially the one that displayed the kindergartner herself inside the habitat, in the form of 3D statuettes made out of photographs.
How are children supposed to learn to do their own best work when parents intervene and micromanage? Better late than never, I learned my lesson that evening, vowing to limit future meddling to a defined set of guidelines.
Still sensitive on the topic, I started noticing parental overreaching everywhere, even at work. Although I always look forward to ordering my annual stash of Thin Mints, coworkers posting their kids’ Girl Scout cookie order forms on the office fridge suddenly irked me. I was livid when a supervisor walked into my office to ask me to buy from him rather than sign my name to someone else’s sheet in the office kitchen.
“Or you could buy from all of us,” he proposed.
How accommodating. Who’s “us?” The boss and his fellow vendors, or the kids?
I’m not suggesting that children go door to door on their own to solicit donations. But what are they learning from their parents coming home with a completed cookie order sheet and essentially earning their badge for them?
Many years later, my 15-year-old asked me to start collecting Box Tops for her social studies class. She explained that her teacher awarded significant extra credit points at the end of each marking period to students who brought in 15 Box Tops – that’s 60 per year, per student. The teacher collected them for his son so that his class could win a pizza party.
Arguably, the collection raises money for a good cause. But the ethics of a teacher essentially bribing students with extra credit points so that he can hand thousands of Box Tops over to his child, who did nothing to earn them, are questionable.
Our kids need our help and guidance at many points along the way. Those are the teachable moments, also often the hardest and most rewarding. Doing our kids’ work robs them of the opportunity to learn the material. It also robs them of the opportunity to navigate their own lives.
There is nothing wrong with checking over a rubric to make sure your son satisfied all the requirements, after he does the work himself. There’s nothing wrong with editing an essay after your daughter wrote it and fact-checked it on her own. There’s nothing wrong with discussing a book you’ve both read or a news event she needs to report on in class. But there’s something very wrong with doing it for her.
As this past summer drew to a close and many students prepared last-minute AP projects due on the first day of school, I noticed a Facebook post by one mother whose status proudly proclaimed, “Sitting by the pool, helping my daughter with her summer AP essays.” I couldn’t help but wonder how this kid would be getting through the year.
There’s a fine line between helping and doing the work for our children, and it’s our job to know when we’ve crossed it. I can’t imagine what those kindergarten dioramas would’ve looked like had Pinterest been around back then.
The temptation to step over the line to ensure a higher grade may come from a good place, but the reward for resisting is far greater.